Monday, December 3, 2007

"Phenomenon" by Sylvia Browne

The paranormal world in which Browne spends a great deal of her time is fascinating, informative, thrilling and God-centered...With the aid of her Spirit Guide, Francine, she is able to give us some input about the other side, and where it's situated comparatively to the earth. Through her eyes, the paranormal world isn't all that mysterious. She would love to lift the veil and shine a light on those monsters in your room you've spent your life being afraid of, to show you that it's just a harmless pile of clothes on a chair.

To Browne, even if you're not eager to confide in other people about your experiences because they may think that you're crazy, you would feel so much better knowing that there really is an explanation for what happened, that there are even words for these things, and that there are other perfectly sane people they've happened to.

As far as your own experiences have shown you, do you think that each of us is equipped with a gift that is unique? Do you believe in these spirits that churches called "guardian angels" and Browne calls "spirit guides"?

About the Author

"Sylvia Browne was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At three years old, Sylvia's psychic powers were revealed when she announced that her grandfather was dead (he was), and that she would have a baby sister in three years.

"Just as predicted, Sharon was born one month short of Sylvia's sixth birthday. Sylvia's grandmother, Ada Coil, was herself a medium; and Celeste, Sylvia's mother, grew up in a home where visions were commonplace. Although she herself was not psychic, Celeste accepted it as normal, if somewhat annoying. She did not welcome more eccentricity in her life, however, and would do nothing to encourage it in her daughter. Their lifelong relationship was strained, but Sylvia's relationship with her father was very close and loving.

"Sylvia is the number # 1 New York Times best selling author and world famous psychic who appears regularly on the Montel Williams Show and Larry King Live, as well as making countless other media and public appearances. She also the president of the Sylvia Browne Corporation, and founder of her church, the Society of Novus Spirit which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2006.

"With her down-to-earth personality and great sense of humor, Sylvia Browne thrills audiences on her lecture tours, and she's still found the time to write a number of immensely popular books (she has a master's degree in English literature). Sylvia lives in California and plans to write as long as she can."

(from Sylvia Browne's "about" page on her website)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio: Introduction


Today we begin a month long discussion of The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio by Jonathan Harr. But first a few sites that may be of interest to you:

For a summary of the book and a biography of the author:

For information about art conservation and restoration:

For information about Caravaggio:

For information about The Taking of Christ (Caravaggio):

For selected reviews:
Please type title The Lost Painting and author Jonathan Harr to access reviews on this site.

For customer reviews:


The reputation of artists and writers often swings widely depending on the tenor of the times. How was Caravaggio's art regarded by his contemporaries? Do we hold the same views today? What was the Church's view of his work?

What is it about Caravaggio's work that sustains interest over several centuries?

I look forward to your participation.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Conclusion

"All types of identities--ethnic, national, religious, sexual or whatever else--can become our prison...The identity that we stand up for can enslave us and close us to the rest of the world." Murathan Mungan's words resonate with me strongly as I attempt to understand human history and modernity, and the future of our planet and our species.

The fictional trial and fate of Tom Robinson alludes to many overt and covert forces in individual psyche, and many direct and subtle processes of group behavior. Although To Kill a Mockingbird can be interpreted at many levels, one aspect stands out unmistakably for me: Be it race or interpersonal or inter-faith or international relations, identity, not 'free will' is a crucial factor in determining the nature of perception, the quality of emotion, and the direction of action. Even if it is accepted that will of all human beings is 'free,' the choices open to them are seriously constrained by racial and/or cultural identity.

One can find many statistically significant examples across cultures and ages in support of the above statement. For instance, according to a survey conducted by USA Today (October 9, 1995), 75% of White respondents thought O.J. Simpson to be guilty whereas only 25% of the Black respondents thought so. We mostly perceive reality the way we, as members of a given group, have been conditioned to perceive. Such conditioning and corresponding perceptions have been consolidated by enduring demands of evolution, and chronic considerations of survival and security, comfort and competition. While O.J. Simpson is still in the headlines, the Duke lacrosse players and Jena 6 or many similar events are symptoms of complex intertwined dynamics of power, perception and identity. As Anais Nin said: “We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

Not just at the local level, but identity is at the center of world politics today. It underwrites elections and alliances, wars and revolutions. Identity factors are at work not just in business and politics but in art, education, media, parenting, preaching and personal affinities across cultures, if we analyze deeply enough.

But identity need not be destiny as Atticus Finch’s character clearly depicts. He was not only an ideal father but a just and true citizen of the world. Why human beings like Atticus Finch so rare in any culture, one wonders? Lawrence Kohlberg’s ideas of moral development as explicated in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory are quite instructive in this regard:

"If we look at moral development in general we find that an infant at birth has not yet been socialized into the culture’s ethics and conventions; this is called the preconventional stage. It is also called egocentric, in that the infant’s awareness is largely self-absorbed. But as the young child begins to learn its culture’s rules and norms, it grows into the conventional stage of morals. This stage is also called ethnocentric, in that it centers on the child’s particular group, tribe, clan, or nation, and it therefore tends to exclude care for those not of one’s group. But at the next major stage of moral development, the postconventional stage, the individual’s identity expands once again, this time to include a care and concern for all peoples, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed, which is why this stage is also called worldcentric. Thus, moral development tends to move from “me” (egocentric) to “us” (ethnocentric) to “all of us” (worldcentric)—a good example of the unfolding stages of consciousness."

One can say that Harper Lee's portrayal of the jury which convicted Tom Robinson corresponds to ego and ethnocentric levels of moral development. Atticus, though himself a native of Maycomb, is not the archetypal Southerner but a version of Emersonian man, the individual who listens to the calling of what is universal and highest in the human soul--truth, love and justice. By cultivating and living such values undiscouraged and rearing children according to his lights, Atticus places principled action above self-interest while willingly accepting the difficult consequences of the right decision.

In the immortal character of Atticus, Harper Lee has given us what Albert Schweitzer dreamed of when he said: "Civilization can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind, independent of the prevalent one among the crowds, and in opposition to it -- a tone of mind which will gradually win influence over the collective one, and in the end determine its character. Only an ethical movement can rescue us from barbarism, and the ethical comes into existence only in individuals...A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help."

This post concludes our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. Thanks to all who posted comments. The November title is Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Popularity and Influence

To Kill a Mockingbird has been popular ever since its publication in 1960. Even before its release, four national mail-order book clubs had chosen it as their monthly selection. Within two years, it had won the Alabama Association Award, the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference on Christians and Jews, and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (Harper Lee was the first woman to win this prize since Ellen Glasgow in 1942). The film rights were sold and the resulting movie (on which Harper Lee served as a special consultant after she declined to write the screenplay) came out in 1962. Since its publication, the novel has been one of the ten most frequently assigned books in secondary schools.

Interestingly, apart from the reviews TKAM received when it was published, there has been little in the way of literary criticism focused on it. It's mainly in the legal literature that people have dissected the book, at least the character of Atticus. See, for example, "Being Atticus Finch: The Professional Role of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird" from the Harvard Law Review and "Reconstructing Atticus Finch" by Steven Lubet, a critical piece that originally appeared in the Michigan Law Review and garnered dissenting responses.

Why do you think there has been a relative lack of scholarly discussion about TKAM, especially given how influential the book is in people's lives (remember that it's second only to the Bible as a book that's "made a difference" to us)? For those of you in the legal field, is Atticus Finch still a relevant touchstone for your profession?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Crime and Justice

While the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird concerns the attempts of Scout, Jem, and Dill to get to the bottom of the Boo Radley mystery, the second half centers around the trial of Tom Robinson. One of the most quoted passages in the book is part of Atticus's closing remarks, about the sanctity of the court itself:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe[...]But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal -- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.[...]Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

(This is an echo of the real-life judge, James E. Horton, who presided over the retrial of the Scottsboro Boys: "Now, gentlemen, under our law when it comes to the courts we know neither native nor alien, we know neither Jew nor Gentile, we know neither black nor white....It is our duty to mete out even-handed justice." [quoted in To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries by Claudia Durst Johnson])

Do you agree with this assessment, either within the context of the book (the norms of violent racial prejudice) or in real life? Can the fact that Tom Robinson is found guilty even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary be explained by "Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution"? Is Atticus's optimism (indeed, is Atticus himself) even believable?

Think about other cases that have reflected the toxic side of American ethnic relations, like, recently, the Duke lacrosse players (three white college students accused of sexually assaulting a black stripper at a party; the students were eventually determined to be innocent but many members of the university community and the general public were all too willing to believe that the men were guilty) and the Jena 6 (six black Louisiana teenagers charged with attempted murder after a white classmate was beaten up at school; the first to be tried was initially convicted by an all-white jury selected from an all-white jury pool, but the case is far from over). What connections to our world of criminal justice do you see in TKAM?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Introduction

Brooklyn Public Library is proud to host Harper Lee’s highly acclaimed novel as part of The Big Read -- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture. The Big Read is all about bringing people together to read one great American classic at the same time and understand how its themes are still relevant today. In Brooklyn, it kicked off on Sunday, September 16, at the Brooklyn Book Festival at Borough Hall. During October many of our branches are hosting book discussions, including in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Polish. Here, we welcome you to the online discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.

First published in 1960, Mockingbird received the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has since become one of the most widely read, studied and cherished novels in America. A sign of the novel’s impact on the people who read it is found in “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits,” conducted in 1991 by the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book. The survey found that among the books mentioned by its 5000 respondents, Mockingbird was second only to the Bible in being “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives.

The historical context of the novel is formed by the regional history of race relations in Alabama in the 1930s and contains many themes such as pride and prejudice, ignorance and hatred, humor and pathos, humanity and brutality, fear and superstition, curiosity and innocence, courage and justice, and life's almost invisible politics and polarities.

Narrated by young Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, the novel is a fictionalized account of the Scottsboro case of 1931, in which nine black youths were arrested and several of them sentenced on the charge of raping two white women while riding on a freight train near the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. Only much later was it discovered that the women had fabricated the whole story.

The novel centers around Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, whose humane view of life is the heart of the novel. The facts of life dramatized in the novel are often ugly but they are reality. Atticus Finch defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Although Finch’s defense clearly proves his client to be innocent, Tom Robinson is nonetheless found guilty by the white jury, and is later killed during a prison escape. Into this tragic and cruel scenario, Scout weaves the predicament of Boo Radley, the reclusive bogeyman of neighborhood legend, whose invisible presence tantalizes the children, and who eventually protects Scout and her brother, Jem, from Tom’s accuser. Boo is connected with Tom with the motif of the mockingbird (‘they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us’), and creates an impression that something innocent is being bruised and broken.

In the views of renowned critic Edgar H. Schuster, Harper Lee’s greatest achievement in this novel is that she has placed prejudice in a perspective which allows us to see it as an aspect of larger phenomena--phenomena which arise from unconscious forces, from phantom contacts, from fear and lack of knowledge of the “other.” It disappears with the kind of knowledge or education that one gains through learning what people are really like when you “finally see them.” It is one of those rare books that expose some of the worst aspects of human nature but also provides insights into how people can be capable of the best.

Some discussion questions:

In what ways is the 1930s era, with WWII looming on the horizon and the Great Depression in full swing, relevant to the events of the novel? How does what was happening in Nazi Germany at the time parallel relations between blacks and whites in the American South?

In his closing arguments, Atticus asserts that Mayella accused Tom Robinson of rape “in an effort to get rid of her own guilt” for trying to seduce him. Can you think of other instances of this psychological dynamic—one group projecting its guilt onto another and then punishing that group to preserve its own “innocence”?

What had you heard about the novel before you read it? Had you seen the film? How was your experience of the book different from what you expected? How is it different from the film?

Atticus also insists to the jury that “there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” Does the jury’s guilty verdict invalidate Atticus’s claims? Are the courts today “the great levelers,” making us all equal, as Atticus believes, or do wealth and race play an inordinate role in the way justice is distributed in America?

In what ways does Mockingbird speak to the current identity (race, class, creed, gender, ethnicity, sexuality) issues that confront America?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies: Conclusion

This post concludes our month-long discussion of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Thanks to all who participated. The October book discussion title is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“Mrs. Sen’s”

Another babysitter, another boy charge – this time the boy, Eliot, is American, and the caretaker, Mrs. Sen, is an Indian living in America with her husband. Mrs. Sen suffers the slings and arrows of living in a foreign country with quiet dignity.

The boy’s mother displays a not-so subtle distaste for anything Indian. She seems almost to be self-righteous about it. She wants the simplicity of the standard American servant/employer relationship. Mrs. Sen prevents this by offering the mother food, insisting she come into the apartment, and by letting the mother know that in India, “we have a driver.”

Eliot observed as Mrs. Sen “paced the apartment, staring at the plastic-covered lampshades as if noticing them for the first time.” She also listens to tapes of her family members speaking. I wondered, since Eliot betrays no feelings throughout the story, if he finds Mrs. Sen and her home life as sad as I do. Did you feel sad reading of Mrs. Sen’s daily routines?

I predicted that Mrs. Sen would have a car accident. Did you? Do you see a predictable plot twist as a flaw in a story? Should a story be unpredictable?

What does the fresh fish represent for Mrs. Sen? Her husband? Eliot? How did you feel when Mrs. Sen was reprimanded by the bus driver/ passenger because of the fish’s odor?

What impression will Mrs. Sen have on Eliot in the long term? Do you think he will remember the time he spent with her? Did it mean anything to him?

Monday, September 17, 2007


Miranda, a twenty-something American woman, is having an affair with Dev, a Bengali-American man. Miranda's co-worker Laxmi obsesses about her cousin, recently deserted by her husband for a another woman.

One idea presented here is that some people are not interested in geography until they become involved with someone from a particular part of the world. Then they want to know more, and the "foreign land" becomes fetishized. Miranda is using Dev like a tourist to “experience” her idea of India:
“Now, when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon.”

Do you think Lahiri has any sympathy for Miranda? (I wondered if Lahiri had encountered Miranda in America, in real life.) On one hand, Miranda seems to embody a certain type of person: she means well in the way she relates to people of other races, but gets it all wrong. At the same time, she displays an admirable strength for a woman in the throws of a passionate, doomed affair; she is able to pull herself out before her heart is broken.

Rohin, the young boy, makes me uncomfortable with his behavior. Why doesn’t he make Miranda uncomfortable? Why doesn’t she explain normal boundaries to him, the way another adult caretaker would?

Why IS Miranda so able to let go of Dev? Did that surprise you? How did her interaction with Rohin help her to move on?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

“ A Real Durwan”

Boori Ma, Sweeper of the Stairwell, like Mr. Pirzada, is a victim of Partition and has been deported to Calcutta as a result. She sleeps under the stairs of the building where she is allowed to live, functioning as a doorman, or durwan, for the building. Boori Ma is a character, but she’s hard to like, as are the people in her building. Boori Ma wants to be special, as evidenced in her reaction to finding herself terribly itchy one morning:
“Boori Ma preferred to think that what irritated her bed, what stole her sleep, what burned like peppers across her thinning scalp and skin, was of a less mundane origin.”

Do you believe that Boori Ma was truly rich before partition?

Did Boori Ma’s neighbors view her as a human being? Do you think she makes them uncomfortable, and if so, for what reasons?

When the neighbor tries to help Boori Ma by offering to buy her new bedding, what is her motivation?

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Interpreter of Maladies"

Young parents Mina and Raj Das, of New Brunswick, NJ, travel in India with their three children. Their tour guide is Mr. Kapasi, also employed as an “interpreter of maladies” for Gujarati patients who speak a language different from their doctor. Mrs. Das takes an interest in Mr. Kapasi, and vice versa. Mrs. Das uses Mr. Kapasi to express her frustration with her husband and her life, while Mr. Kapasi imagines she actually cares for him and that they will keep in touch after the Das family leaves India.

The first line of this story is “At the tea stall Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet.” Since neither Mr. or Mrs. Das is physically disabled, this says terrible things about these two as parents. Who could argue about such a task while a child waits to relieve him or herself? What better way to make a child feel like an unwanted nuisance?

In this story, American children of Indian immigrants visit India and act like “ugly American” tourists. They treat “the help” condescendingly. They set bad examples for their children. Have you witnessed behavior like this – in parents, adults, employees, employers? Ever been on either end of the equation? What happened?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”

This story takes place in the autumn of 1971, and is narrated by a young girl. Lilia’s Indian-born parents play host to a man who is temporarily working in the U.S. Political strife in his native East Pakistan keeps Mr. Pirzada in the dark about his family’s whereabouts. Mr. Pirzada finds a substitute daughter in Lilia, who indulges his gifts of candy and his concern for her on the American holiday Halloween.

Lilia’s parents, from India, circle “familiar” surnames in their university directory and contact the people for social purposes. Did you have any reaction to this practice? Have you ever known anyone who did this?

What are other ways that first or second-generation Americans connect with people of the same race, religion or nationality?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies: “A Temporary Matter”

In “A Temporary Matter,” a couple’s world is altered when the electricity and water in their apartment are shut off every evening for one hour. By the end, both aknowledge their detachment from each other and reveal secret betrayals.

It seems inconceivable that couples who commit to spending their lives together find themselves unable even to make conversation. Yet this seems to be a common type of marital strife. What keeps Shoba and Shukumar– and perhaps other couples in reality - from discussing their feelings?

Why are Shoba and Shukumar seemingly able to remember their love for each other in the darkness each night? Or is something else taking place?

Do you think Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage could have been saved had they voiced their frustrations before this week?

Interpreter of Maladies: Introduction


Today we begin a month-long discussion of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). Here is some biographical information about the author:

Jhumpa Lahiri was born 1967 in London, England, and raised in Rhode Island. She is a graduate of Barnard College, where she received a B.A. in English literature, and of Boston University, where she received an M.A. in English, M.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in Comparative Studies in Literature and the Arts, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was translated into twenty-nine languages and became a bestseller both in the United States and abroad. In addition to the Pulitzer, it received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and a nomination for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Lahiri was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002. The Namesake (2003) is Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel. She lives in New York with her husband and son. (source)

The stories in Interpreter of Maladies feature many recurring themes and situations, including:
-Interactions between Indian immigrants or Indian-Americans and white Americans.
-Various relationships are explored: employer/ employee, husband/wife, married/
unmarried lovers, tour guide/tourists, babysitter/mother/child.
-Precocious boys left in the care of unfamiliar women.
-The home life (and vacation life) of young, dissatisfied Indian or Indian-American
-Pitiful individuals are kept at a distance, either by choice or by marginalization.
-The role of one’s nationality in a foreign or adopted country.

Naturally, the stories in Interpreter are fraught with ideas and tensions. I’ve come up with observations and questions about each story, and will post entries about each story in the same order that they appear in the book. I hope we will draw comparisons and liasons between the stories and analyze the book on the whole. I look forward to your participation!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grief: You must get over it, and yourself! (But it's hard.)

Grief is a novel primarily written for a gay readership. Those who understand aspects of gay life can best understand the humor, ironies, and the human touch of this novel. Many gay male readers will nod knowingly at some of the references to fashion, sex clubs, the snobbery of the young, the obsession of the middle-aged with the young and buff and personal ads. A reader not fully attuned to these things may fall into the trap of taking the narrator at face value and not notice how clueless he is about some things.

The narrator is virtually blind to anything that doesn’t support his point of view. For example, Frank and his friend, the landlord, advise the narrator to get his own place in Washington. But the narrator continues throughout the novel in the fantasy that he can develop an important bond with the landlord just by being his tenant. Frank attempts to puncture his illusions in his own inimitable way by telling the narrator that the real reason that the landlord has thanked him so warmly for walking his dog is that he’s setting boundaries and the reason the landlord is acting friendlier is because the narrator is leaving.

The narrator listens to a piece of music at a concert and feels it suggests “that what had happened to the person you loved you would never get over; that you still carried it with you; that it lay beneath all things; and only this music—these few notes—recognized that everything else you had been doing, and would do, to fill up the time was meaningless.” He looks at a painting of Adonis preparing to leave Venus and sees Venus feeling rejected rather than, as his student suggests, Venus wanting to hold Adonis back from going out to hunt dangerous animals like boars. A boar ends up killing him. The narrator is obsessed with Mary Todd Lincoln, whose grief at the assassination of her husband consumes her. But the narrator doesn’t notice the aspects of her grieving that could be one of the more melodramatic movie roles played by Bette Davis.

The death of his mother is, understandably, a source of sorrow for the narrator. However, this death could be seen as less wrenching than the deaths of so many young men to AIDS or the sudden unexpected death of a leader and husband in his prime. Frank suggests that Mary Todd Lincoln and even the landlord’s dog, both all alone and powerless, remind the narrator of his mother in the nursing home. The shocking ending to the novel seems to show that Holleran sees the narrator as someone who has gone too far in his grief.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Grief: Serious Humor

While Grief is a powerful novel on a serious theme, grief, and how difficult it is to get over it, it is important to note that there is more than a touch of humor in the novel that coexists with the darkness, much of it referring to aspects of gay life. The landlord observes that gay men are "fickle," changing "their decor more often than their gym." He remarks that it's not easy being an "aging actress." At parties, he notes, "everyone was wearing the same sweater and the same shoes, and all of them looking for someone who did not exist." Death, and, in particular, the deaths of so many lost to AIDS is, of course, serious business. When the narrator reflects on a friend who died of AIDS, whose mother he visits, there is, however, some humor in the fact that his friend had sought to maintain control during his life, protecting himself from the sun and even using a mind control method for discipline; who should, seemingly, have been less likely to meet such a death? The narrator takes the experiences of Mary Todd Lincoln in her grief very seriously. But when he discusses her tears after a cup of tea is accidentally spilled on her the landlord remarks that it would make a great scene in a movie. The narrator's obsession with Mary Todd Lincoln indicates how seriously he takes his own grief over his mother; but, without providing a spoiler, the ending of the book, as startling as it is, could almost be the punchline of a joke.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Grief: Author Information

The Wikipedia entry on Andrew Holleran provides information about the author as well as useful Wikipedia links to other works and related topics.

Be sure to check out the Paul Morton interview with Holleran in Bookslut for March 2007; an external link is provided at the bottom of the the Wikipedia entry. It provides a good introduction to his ideas and themes.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Grief by Andrew Holleran

Grief. What is it? What effect can it have in our lives? In Grief, Andrew Holleran explores these issues. A middle-aged man who is gay grieves over the loss of his mother, who has recently died after an extended stay at a nursing home. He accepts a temporary teaching assignment in Washington, D. C., filling in temporarily for a faculty member who is on sabbatical, and rents a room in a house whose landlord is a friend of a friend. In his landlord's library he finds and reads the letters and journals of Mary Todd Lincoln and becomes consumed with interest in how she describes her experiences leading to eventual deterioration, unable to reconcile herself to the tragedy of the death of her husband, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. As he contemplates her decline, he confronts other kinds of grief, such as the grief of middle-aged men like himself who can no longer enjoy the excitement and friendship of youth, and the grief of a whole community that has lost so many people to a ravaging disease.

In this powerful novel, Holleran explores grief in a number of manifestations. What do you think about this novel's view of grief? In what ways do the people depicted in this novel find it difficult or impossble to let go of a vanished past and move on? What does Holleran convey to readers about both the awareness and lack of awareness of the narrator and other characters? How does his view of grief compare with your own experiences of or observations about grief?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Night Watch: What to Read Next

Thanks to all who participated in our discussion of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. If you have more to contribute, please do -- most of the discussion is in the comments to the first post. Next Wednesday, August 1, we will begin a discussion of Grief by Andrew Holleran -- please join us!

Besides Grief, what will you read next? Recommending books can be so difficult because often the only qualities that can be articulated and put into library catalogs and search engines are basic categories like setting and major character attributes. Much of what made The Night Watch unique and compelling, to my mind, are its portrayals of companionship, love, loss, and redemption, but those are not quite searchable qualities (though computerized "reader's advisory" databases such as NoveList and Library of Congress subject headings make an effort).

So here is a very selective list of titles, based on those more concrete aspects, that you might want to check out now that you've read The Night Watch. All but one are contemporary works of historical fiction, and all are either set in 1930s-1940s England or use homosexuality as a theme, or both. Enjoy!

  • First off, if you liked The Night Watch but haven't read any of Waters's previous novels, I recommend you do so (note that these are all set in Victorian England, not the 1940s):
    Tipping the Velvet

  • Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres
    Originally published, to much scandal, in 1950 and reissued with a pulpy cover that plays up the book as a lesbian melodrama, this is the autobiographical tale of female soldiers in the Free French Army in a London barracks during World War II. (Says the author, "there are five main characters. Only one and a half of them can be considered lesbian. I don't see why it's considered a lesbian classic. I find it maddening.") More details can be found in the article "O! What a Steamy War" by John Lichfield (The Independent, June 16, 2007).

  • Helen Carey has written a trilogy of novels about ordinary people in WWII London:
    Lavender Road
    Some Sunny Day
    On a Wing and a Prayer

  • Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
    Suspicions of a scandalous love triangle between two members of the nobility and a commoner erupt in 18th century England.

  • While England Sleeps by David Leavitt
    Issues of class and sexuality play out against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil war and the rise of fascism in Europe.

  • Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon
    The early 20th-century Jewish immigrant experience, from the Pale of Settlement to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as lived by a young and spirited lesbian.

  • Forests of the Night: A Johnny Hawke Novel by David Stuart Davies
    For those who enjoyed the setting of The Night Watch and like mysteries and suspense novels, this is the first book in a projected series about a one-eyed private investigator in Blitz-era London.

  • The Night Watch on LibraryThing
    For hours of fun and perhaps even edification, take a look at LibraryThing!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Night Watch: "Conchy"

Several people have brought up Fraser in their comments. He would have been an interesting character to be inside of (as opposed to, for example, Julia, whom I found intriguing but a little too one-dimensional in her narcissistic chilliness, or Reggie), though I think Waters made a good choice to keep his true self at a distance from the reader.

Fraser can sometimes rouse himself to encourage his fellow prisoners to think critically, as when he chastises Duncan and the others for saying "it's someone else's war, not ours" -- "'...You're doing just what they want you to do.[...]You're giving up your right to think! I don't blame you, Pearce. It's hard, in here, when there's no encouragement to do anything else. When they don't let you listen, even, to the news!'" Then he picks up the newspaper that's had almost all the news articles clipped out and says, "'That's what they'll do to your mind,' he said, 'if you let them. Don't let them, Pearce!' He spoke very passionately, holding Duncan's gaze with his clear blue eyes[...]"

But he's also full of doubt, as in the final prison scene in 1944, when the bombs are falling close by and he says to Duncan: "'Don't you think I never wonder, about -- about fear? It's the very worst thing, the very worst thing of all. I could take any amount of tribunals. I could take women calling me gutless in the streets! But to think to oneself, quietly, that the tribunals and the women might be right; to have the suspicion gnawing and gnawing at one: do I truly believe this, or am I simply a -- a bloody coward?'" This scene ends with the two men lying together in Duncan's bed even after the All Clear has sounded, taking comfort in the ordinary human contact denied to everyone in the prison setting -- extraordinary circumstances heightening the impact of two people reaching out to each other in really such a simple way. "They settled back into an embrace -- as if it were nothing, as if it were easy; as if they weren't two boys, in a prison, in a city being blown and shot to bits; as if it were the most natural thing in the world."

What is Fraser really like? In the 1947 section, released from prison, he was annoying Vivien (and this reader) as she tried to accomplish her secret quest give back Kay's ring, and he stood up Duncan that same night. He's basically a normal young man (upper class, like Kay and Julia and unlike the other main characters), a reporter now, representing a more fortunate life despite his past life as an inmate. Perhaps with him the Pearce siblings will find some happiness at last.

Comment on this storyline below, or participate in the discussion on the initial Night Watch post.

And for some historical context on this storyline, here are a few resources (to access some, you will need a valid BPL card to get into our subscription databases):

  • "Prisoners of Conscience" by Juliet Gardiner (History Today, November 2004)


    "The London tribunal [before which people explained why they should be exempt from military service] which sat in Fulham was notorious, and so was the Newcastle-based Northumberland and Durham one. The chairman, Judge Richardson, was reported to have insulted Jehovah's Witnesses mocking 'you might pray and preach, but what good do you do?' and one day delivered the opinion that 'I am certain, as sure as I sit here, that if Christ appeared today he would approve of this war'."


    "There was no such thing as a typical Conscientious Objector. A Mass-Observation survey in July 1940 concluded that most 'have occupations where particular intelligence is required, or a higher standard of education ... and even highbrow tastes in cultural matters'." This included "a tendency to be vegetarian, love their mothers, love animals, [though] not all these things are unconventional." In fact, a wide range of professions were represented among COs of the era.

  • "Harry S. Truman and the Issue of Amnesty for Conscientious Objectors" by Andrew J. Dunar (Peace & Change, July 1991)

    A detailed article about President Truman's attitude towards conscientious objectors in the U.S. during World War II and its aftermath, when a high-profile amnesty campaign tried for years to free still-imprisoned COs.


    "By most measures, America's treatment of COs during World War II had been harsh. COs were four times as likely to be arrested as during World War I, despite the dismal civil liberties record of the Wilson administration. Violation of the Selective Service Act, a misdemeanor during World War I, had been upgraded to a felony. Prison terms had increased from a maximum of a year to an average of more than two and a half. Comparison with Canada and Great Britain showed other democracies more tolerant in granting CO status, more benevolent in administration of alternative service programs, and less likely to restrict civil rights of COs after the war. Even the most progressive improvement in the treatment of COs--the establishment of CPS camps in which civilians supervised COs in forestry camps and public hospitals--was but a qualified success and seemed to some 'an experiement in democratic suppression of a dissident religious minority in time of war.'" [emphasis mine]

  • "Conchie": The Wartime Experiences of a Conscientious Objector by Ernest C.T. Spring

  • "Forgotten Women of World War II: Wives of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service" by Heather T. Frazer and John O'Sullivan (Peace & Change, Fall 1978)

  • "Conscientious Objector in World War II" by Jack Powelson (The Quaker Economist, Feb. 15, 2004)

  • And if ever you're in Leeds, you could visit the Second World War Experience Centre, which "collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and encourages access to the surviving material evidence and associated information of the men and women who participated in the war in whatever capacity, whether military, civilian or conscientious objector."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Night Watch: Odds and Ends

A few housekeeping items...

  • You may not realize that you can subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog/discussion (unfortunately, the comments will not appear in your feed reader, just the posts, so you'll still want to visit the site frequently to see what everyone's saying!). A number of free web-based feed readers are reviewed in this article and this article. Wikipedia of course has an informative entry for aggregators/feed readers if you're not sure what I'm talking about.

  • We heard from a reader who tried repeatedly to submit a comment that never came through. If that's happened to you, please email your comment to and we'll post it from there.

  • And don't forget that in just a couple of weeks, we will begin our discussion of Andrew Holleran's Grief, a brief but deeply affecting portrayal of love and loss.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Night Watch: The Love That Dares Not...

According to Lillian Faderman in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, wartime in the U.S. offered a more tolerant atmosphere for lesbians, especially in the military. This was in contrast to the 1930s, when a greater awareness of the existence of homosexuality (no longer did the true relationship of two close female friends go unsuspected) ratcheted up hostility towards same-sex partnerships. In The Night Watch, we get a sense of the war years as a time for boundaries to be crossed, including extramarital affairs and areas where lesbians could exist with some amount of freedom, like working the ambulance "night watch." (For me, though, one of the gaps in the story was how exactly Kay and Helen got together -- Helen never having been with a woman before, and there being no easy way for Kay to figure out which "sort of love" she gravitated towards.)

While Helen lives in fear of being found out, it is still relatively easy to speak innocently to her coworker about the "friend" she lives with, and even her and Julia's vulgar neighbor doesn't speculate salaciously about the nature of their shared living arrangement -- the "eunuchs upstairs," he says about them.

The all-female representations of the universally human pathos of relationships -- for example, being in love with someone who doesn't love you, as Kay experiences with Helen, as Helen ends up doing, and as, we eventually learn, Julia has done with Kay -- make this a book that, indeed, writes lesbians back into history but avoids being of niche interest.

What do you think Kay's future holds? Mickey's? As their 46-year-old friend Binkie says, "'Tell me truly: doesn't the life we lead ever get you down? It's all right when one is young. It's positively thrilling when one is twenty! [...] But one gets to an age where one sees the truth of it. One gets to an age where one is simply exhausted. And one realises one has finished with the whole damn game...You wait till you're my age [...] and wake every morning to gaze on the vast tract of uncreased linen that is the other side of the divan. Try being gallant to that...We shan't even have children, don't forget, to look after us in our old age.'"

Kay, after all, has no financial obligation to work, so what will she do now? Will the return of her ring, and with it the reminder of an intense time long gone, spur her to action of a more fulfilling sort than "getting up a girl" in movie theaters?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Upcoming Chat Book Discussions

We're still doing The Night Watch here, but in the meantime I want to announce the three upcoming chat discussions that will be facilitated by a New York Public Library librarian throughout the summer.

This information, as well as the log-in, is on the Book Discussions and Author Chats page on NYC's Summer Reading website.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Welcome again to Brooklyn's online book discussion, Brooklyn Book Talk. Various BPL librarians are leading these discussions, and each month features a new title chosen by a different librarian. The titles can range from classics to contemporary fiction, drama and non-fiction. We are hoping that you will find these discussions entertaining and educational.

Today we begin a month of discussion of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. This is also a title on NYC's Summer Reading booklist for adults.

Sarah Waters is an English writer renowned for her detailed and entertaining works of historical fiction. She has been publishing since 1998, with her four novels thus far each winning numerous prizes and accolades. Her first book, Tipping the Velvet, was adapted as a BBC drama in 2002, Fingersmith (2001) was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Waters was named one of Granta's twenty Best of Young British Writers in 2003. Her most recent work, The Night Watch, takes place in the years just after and during World War II and marks the first of her books to depart from a Victorian London setting. Waters began writing novels after doing her PhD thesis on lesbian historical fiction and becoming intrigued about the struggles and passions of queer women of past eras, the late 19th century in particular.

The Night Watch centers around four young Londoners -- Kay, Duncan, Helen, and Vivien -- in different periods in 1947, 1944, and 1941. Rather than take up space going through the plot here, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry for the book.

While there is much to talk about in this, Waters's darkest and most complex novel to date, to begin our discussion, I want to bring up the most obviously unusual aspect of the book -- the reverse narration. Since I had read some reviews (and the summary on the book itself!), I was well aware that the story would move backwards and that the end of the first section (taking place in 1947) would be the end point of the story itself. In other words, the last view we have of the characters comes only a third of the way through the book. I had worried about losing the drive to finish, since I already knew what would "happen" to everyone, but the rich plot and Waters's fine writing meant I had no trouble keeping the book open. In fact, I did a fair amount of flipping back and forth while I read.

What did you think? Did you have trouble following the story as it developed (or "undeveloped")? Why do you think Waters chose to use the reverse narrative?

Please read our Discussion Guidelines before participating.

Additional resources:

Monday, June 4, 2007


Welcome to the first of the online book discussions of Brooklyn Book Talk. Various BPL librarians will lead these discussions, and each month will feature a new title chosen by a different librarian. The titles can range from classics to contemporary fiction, drama and non-fiction. We are hoping that you will find these discussions entertaining and educational.

Our first selection is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

When we read a book, we establish a complex interaction among the author, the book, and ourselves. We ask questions, project meanings, experience emotions, and make inferences. The kind of reading experience we end up with will largely depend on what we ourselves bring to the reading process in the beginning. To make our discussions of Siddhartha richer and more meaningful, we will approach the text from diverse but relevant literary perspectives including formalist, biographical, mythological, historical, psychological, cultural, gender, deconstructionist, and reader-response criticisms. We will attempt to evaluate the emergent insights in the light of reason and evidence supported by the text and the context.

The author, the reader, the text and the context are intertwined in a complex unique unity. This is especially true for Siddhartha as it crosses cultures, philosophies and sensibilities. Hesse fittingly termed his works “biographies of the soul” and “inward journeys” in search of one’s true identity.

We shall begin exploring the many meanings of the novel with an advance acknowledgment of the enduring enigmas of life, world and consciousness and their mysterious possibilities and potentials. As the contemporary novelist Milan Kundera said, “A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.”

Hesse conceived of Siddhartha in 1911 following an extended visit to India in search of the fulfillment that he believed Oriental philosophies could offer. The novel’s youthful protagonist, Siddhartha, is an exceptionally bright, inquisitive yet skeptical Brahmin, a member of the highest caste in Hinduism, who seemingly has a secure and comfortable existence but feels emotionally dissatisfied and spiritually hollow. In due course, he courageously renounces his life of Hindu ritual and embarks on a personal search for the ultimate meaning of life.

Along the way he embraces various philosophies and practices. But, even meeting the Buddha did not convince him of the doctrine of salvation from suffering. Siddhartha reminds the Buddha of his own quest for enlightenment, stating, "You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learnt nothing through teaching, and so I think, O Illustrious One, no one, nobody finds salvation through teaching. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings, what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment."

Nonetheless, Siddhartha’s search for ultimate meaning remained intact but he could not find what he sought as he perceptively observed the consequences of practicing different philosophies on his being and consciousness.

Disillusioned that all these paths failed, Siddhartha becomes a simple quiet ferryman but he never ceases to look for the symbols of meaning that surround his existence. During repeated crossings of the river and relentless introspection, he reaches his own “hour of enlightenment” which even the Buddha could not describe to him. Hence Hesse’s honored insight: “Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again.”

Some possible discussion questions:

The following questions can be combined to explore Siddhartha from several perspectives. You can engage perspectives which most resonate with you.

In what way are the facts about Hesse's life relevant to the understanding of Siddhartha?

Do any of the known myths and archetypes of any culture shed light on the text?

How do you think your own historical moment affects your reading of the work?

How does the work challenge or affirm your own ideas of psychological and spiritual growth?

Discussion Guidelines:

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Brooklyn Public Library's New Online Book Discussions!

Yes, Brooklyn Public Library is going virtual with book discussions.
You've reserved books online, you've delved into the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online and our other digital collections, you've found information and articles via our databases, you've checked out our eBooks, eVideo, and eAudio collections -- and now you have a new way to use your library online.

All you need to participate is an enthusiasm for books and for talking about them. If you want to borrow the titles from BPL but don't yet have a library card, here's how to get one.

One book will be discussed each month, led by a BPL librarian. We'll be starting in June 2007 with Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Download the full text free at Project Gutenberg.